His edits, focusing primarily on grammatical blemishes and an intricate set of biblical symbols, mark the first major overhaul of the Hebrew Bible in nearly 500 years.
Poring over thousands of medieval manuscripts, Cohen, 84, identified 1,500 inaccuracies in the Hebrew language texts that have been corrected in his completed 21-volume set. The final chapter is set to be published in 2013.
The massive project highlights how Judaism venerates each tiny biblical calligraphic notation as a way of ensuring that communities around the world use precisely the same version of the holy book.
According to Jewish law, a Torah scroll is considered void if even a single letter is incorrect or misplaced. Cohen does not call for changes in the writing of the sacred Torah scrolls used in Jewish rites, which would likely set off a firestorm of objection. Instead, he is aiming for accuracy in versions used for study by the Hebrew-reading masses. For the people of the book, Cohen said, there was no higher calling.
“The people of Israel took upon themselves, at least in theory, one version of the Bible, down to its last letter,” Cohen said in his office at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
The last man to undertake the challenge was Jacob Ben-Hayim, who published the Mikraot Gedolot, or Great Scriptures, in Venice in 1525. His version, which unified the religion’s varying texts and commentaries under a single umbrella, has remained the standard for generations of observant Jews.
Ben-Hayim had to rely on inferior manuscripts and commentaries, so numerous inaccuracies crept in and were magnified in subsequent editions.
The errors have no bearing on the Bible’s stories and alter nothing in its meaning. Instead, for example, in some places the markers used to denote vowels in Hebrew are incorrect; or a letter in a word might be wrong, often the result of a centuries-old transcription error. Some of the fixes are in the notations used for cantillation, the text’s ritual chants.
Most of the errors Cohen found were in the final two-thirds of the Hebrew Bible and not in the sacred Torah scrolls, since they do not include vowel markings or cantillation notations.
To achieve his goal, Cohen relied primarily on the Aleppo Codex, the 1,000-year-old parchment text considered to be the most accurate copy of the Bible. Now digitized, the Codex, also known as the Crown, provided a template from which to work. But because about a third of the Codex – nearly 200 pages – remains missing, he had to re-create the five books of Moses based on trends he observed in the Codex and from other sources, including the 11th century Leningrad Codex, considered the second-most authoritative version of the Jewish Bible.
Cohen also included the most comprehensive commentaries available, most notably that of 11th century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, known as Rashi. The result is the completion of Ben-Hayim’s work.
“It was amazing to me that for 500 years, people didn’t sense the errors,” said Cohen. “They just assumed that everything was fine, but in practice everything was not fine.”